democraciaAbierta: Opinion

COP26: Why many are sceptical of politicians’ $19bn pledge to save the Amazon

World leaders have committed to tackling deforestation by 2030, but Indigenous communities know such rhetoric rarely leads to action

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Francesc Badia i Dalmases
8 November 2021, 3.12pm
Aerial view of a fire burning to illegally deforest the Amazon to clear land for agriculture and cattle in Pará, Brazil
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Alamy Stock Photo

For those living within the Indigenous territories of the Amazon, the commitments made by world leaders at COP26 to tackle the scourge of deforestation ring hollow.

As the destruction of the world’s largest rainforest increases, many consider a $19bn pledge to end and reverse deforestation insufficient and uncredible.

Often, world leaders make such grandiose statements at international events in an effort to ensure their place on the right side of history. Doing so is often followed by demonstrating a complete lack of political will to bring such plans into reality. That, combined with the non-binding nature of the agreements, means that what leaders say on the international stage can be in complete contrast to what happens when they return home.

In much of Latin America, large extractive companies are often accused of buying politics. These firms know that their actions, while contrary to environmental commitments of current legislation, will be carried out without obstacles. Much of that is down to the judicial impunity they enjoy and their close relationship with public authorities.

While environmental commitments can help cleanse the dirtiest of consciences and ensure compliance with regulations, the implementation of rules are scarce. Funds to stop deforestation have existed for years but have largely been ineffective.

Another problem in combating deforestation is that international cooperation projects that reach the Indigenous territories are not always aligned with recovery programs. For example, in Caquetá, Colombia, incentives are being granted to improve pastures in the Amazon in areas that were previously deforested, according to Edilma Prada, researcher and intercultural editor of Agenda Propia, an independent media outlet specialising in Indigenous peoples in Latin America.

I don’t trust Jair Bolsonaro’s promise to end illegal deforestation, given his track record

“In order to provide support to the peasants, the banks require them to have land with cattle so they can trigger resources for the reactivation of the countryside,” Prada told democraciaAbierta.

“This ends up encouraging deforestation, according to testimonies gathered as part of Agenda Propia's ongoing research on deforestation in the Amazon. There is no culture of public control over the international cooperation funds destined to stop deforestation and restore already deforested areas. This implies the repeated failure of the programmes.”

In Brazil, deforestation has accelerated under President Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro is aligned with the so-called ‘ruralist caucus’, an influential group of deputies in the National Congress, which openly defends the interests of agribusiness. His former environment minister, Ricardo Salles, resigned amid an investigation into alleged timber trafficking and was replaced by Joaquim Alvaro, who was a member of the Brazilian Rural Society, which defends the interests of agribusiness, for 23 years.

Since Bolsonaro triumphed in the 2018 presidential election, deforestation alerts in the Brazilian Amazon, which were detected by satellite and monitored by Brazil's National Institute for Space Research, have only increased.

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A 2019 investigation by democraciaAbertia revealed Bolsonaro's aggressive plans for intervention in the Amazonia Legal – a term that defines the group of states in the Brazilian Amazon basin – which showed an unequivocal desire to exploit without restraint the natural resources of the so-called lungs of the planet.

“I don't trust Jair Bolsonaro's promise to end illegal deforestation, given his track record,” said Raquel Rosenberg, founder of Engajamundo, an environmental non-government organisation that works with Indigenous youth in the Brazilian Amazon and co-designed democraciaAbierta's Rainforest Defenders project,

“Actions speak louder than words,” she added. “To have an impact, it must be backed by a detailed strategy. Since Bolsonaro's government took power, it has been consistently failing to protect the Amazon rainforest and its populations. The new promise to end illegal deforestation by 2030 is now just that: a promise from a government we don't trust.”

In other regions of the Amazon, there have been similar problems. In Ecuador, for example, Guillermo Lasso, a financier sympathetic to the interests of extractivism, won the general election earlier this year. Lasso defeated an Indigenous environmentalist candidate, Yaku Pérez, by a few tenths of a percent to advance to the second round of the presidential elections in April.

In July, President Lasso, who has just joined the Glasgow pledge on deforestation, signed Executive Decree #95, which establishes the country's new hydrocarbons policy. It is aimed at allowing greater participation by the private sector and seeks to double oil production from the current 493,000 to one million barrels a day, while providing concessions to Petroecuador / Petroamazonas.

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As Bolsonaro claims to protect forests, his leadership has allowed devastation of the Amazonian jungle to reach epic heights

Meanwhile, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the purge of balsa wood continues. The increased demand for balsa is largely due to the wind energy industry, which uses the wood to build increasingly large blades on their wind turbines.

Luciano, an Indigenous Achuar from the Sharamentsa community, recently witnessed the complete deforestation of their islands on the Pastaza River. He told democratiaAbierta that the $19bn pledged at COP26 to halt and reverse deforestation in the next nine years will probably prove useless in the Amazonian territory as there is no real political commitment and the agreements that are signed are not binding.

“I don't want money,” said Luciano. “I don't say I'm poor. I am rich. Rich because of the jungle, rich because of nature, rich because of this Ecuadorian Amazon that I have.”

Pouring money into the problem will not save the Amazon rainforest. Stopping the extraction of resources is what is needed. It’s all the people are asking for.

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